Sunday, October 15, 2017

Same Snake, Different Scales

“Sometimes I think it done changed. And then I sleep and wake up, and it ain’t changed none…It’s like a snake that sheds its skin.  The outside look different when the scales change, but the inside always the same.”  ~Richie in Sing.Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing,Unburied Sing turned me inside out, put another crack in my heart, and turned on another light in my brain.  How can one small book harbor so many of  today’s heart-breaking headlines:  the tragedy of how we treat one another because of something as shallow as skin pigmentation, the epidemic of rural drug addiction and the damage it does to families, the never-ending scourge of poverty and the way it leaves its victims voiceless for generations, and the unjust, ineptly named judicial system in America and the damage it does to us all.  Somehow, Ward shines a light on all of these while telling an engaging story and creating complex, nuanced characters that I expect we will remember for a long time.

Before I was through the first chapter, I loved JoJo as a precocious, wounded, strong, promising 13-year-old young man.  By the time I reached the scene where the sheriff’s deputy pulls the gun on him, I was floored by my own shocked, naïve reaction.  My mind went to “No, you can’t do that.  He’s just a child.  That’s not right.  That couldn’t happen.”  And then I remembered that it happens every day somewhere in America, very often with more tragic results than JoJo’s luck in that scene.  That’s when I realized how sheltered, how unaware on a visceral level  I am of what young  black men in America live and how overwhelmingly frightening it must be to be the parent of a black child.  Even though I try to be compassionate and empathetic, I don’t have the experience, the ability to understand.  It’s truly unfortunate that the people in power in this situation are also the people who have no capacity to understand the nature of its insidious truths.  How will we ever get anywhere? Maybe by beginning to understand that we cannot understand.

Ward’s recognition this week by the MacArthur Foundation encourages me to look forward to more novels from her in the coming years.  I haven’t read her National Book Award winner, Salvage the Bones, but I intend to just as soon as I can handle another emotionally wrenching novel.  I understand it too is set in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi.  I have a feeling both novels are just two of the stories the lyrical, perceptive Ward eventually will give us, and I know we will be better for receiving them.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Our Shadow Selves

photo by Amy Brandon

“Of course I know what I want, she thought, but when she opened her mouth she found it empty.”
Lydia in Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

It’s dark and rainy, and I love it.  I’m beginning to prefer days like these, to find comfort and revelation in the dark as well as in the light. My friend, Carrie, said she found Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng a bit dark for her taste.  I remember wondering before I read it if I might feel the same.  I usually don’t like dark books, but for some reason I didn’t have a problem with this one.  Maybe because it is written in such a way that I knew Lydia was dead in the first three words so I never became emotionally attached to her.  I read the book more as an interesting study of the dysfunctional way we interact with each other, especially within our families. 

I liked the structure of the book – the way Ng seems to scatter random pieces of the plot and then slowly pick them up and tie them together. Even though you know the main plot point from sentence one, tension, uncertainty, and suspense still build as Ng reveals the how and why of Lydia’s death.  The reasons we hide our truths from one another are various, but the end result is the same:  dishonesty leads to discord and sometimes to tragedy.  Like Lydia, many of us aren’t even able to admit our truths to ourselves.  It seems all of the characters in Everything I Never Told You are hiding both from themselves and from those closest to them.  Hidden truths become bent in the hiding and what was beautiful becomes disfigured.  There are few things more beautiful than a fully-realized human who has the courage to live her truth, and there are few things more dangerous than its opposite. Why do we feel compelled to hide from each other as if any of us is anything other than fully human? This book is a study in what happens when we repress our truths and don’t learn to express them before it’s too late to prevent tragedy.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Just Mind the Freaking Sheep

"There are larger rhythms than just our human rhythms.  It's when we think our rhythms are the only noise, that's when we get in trouble.  How do we stop jabbering long enough to hear something beyond ourselves?" ~John Hay

"In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger."  ~ Annie Dillard

I’ve had a hard time getting my thoughts together about David Gessner’s The Prophet of Dry Hill:  Lessons from a Life in Nature.   As I understand it, Gessner began the project intending to write a biography of John Hay, the naturalist author who lived and wrote on Cape Cod in the Twentieth Century.  Lived and wrote may be an understatement in Hay’s case, as it seems John Hay embodied all that was best about Cape Cod prior to its being infected with the cultural equivalent of small pox. Eventually, Gessner decides to write mostly a recording of his conversations with Hay instead of a true biography.

So many ideas are presented and in such a tangential, conversational way that it has taken me about a week to begin to get a handle on them. The most important idea I took away from these conversations is that we keep getting it all so wrong.  Generation after generation, we mindlessly misunderstand our role here and in so doing continue to defile the planet.  We keep running after the wrong things:  money, power, prestige, control, domination, chasing the ever-illusive golden fleece when the whole time we simply should be tending the sheep.  John Hay was one of few people who realized this, thus the word prophet in the title, bringing to mind something Enrique Martinez Celaya said when Krista Tippet interviewed him a few months ago:  "The prophet is not a martyr or mystic who seeks transcendence but one who turns humbly and curiously toward the world."  I would ask that we all try to remember that anything that is beautiful even for one moment and touches the soul of just one person has value and purpose and deserves to be treated with respect.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Innocent Murderess

How many times have I aimlessly wandered the aisles of a bookstore picking up and putting down books whose covers catch my eye? How many of those times have the books I've bought either collected the dust of years on shelves unread or been read and completely forgotten?  One mislaid day in 2002, the book goddess smiled on me, and I happened upon my first Margaret Atwood. I had no idea who she was at the time and have no idea to this day why, on one of my rambles through a bookstore, I picked up a copy of Alias Grace. What I do know is that for the next 15 years, if pressed to choose a favorite book, this random treasure was it. All my life, I've read so much that I struggle to choose a favorite book, but somehow and for reasons I still don't fully understand, this one caught me.  After all the intervening years and so many more books, including new Atwoods, I will have to revise my assessment to say Alias Grace is now one of my favorite books.

This summer, my daughter read it for the first time and urged me to re-read it. As usual, in Alias Grace, Atwood defies easy categorization.  Psychological thriller, historical fiction, gothic mystery, interpersonal drama, character development and study, elements of all those fill the pages of this entertaining read. Just like many of the novel’s characters, I found myself captivated and haunted by the ever elusive Grace. Is she a cold-hearted, calculating murderess or a naïve, innocent rube?  Or, as I suspect, like most of us, is she much more complex and nuanced, harboring some qualities of both?

Maybe the not knowing, the uncertainty is the point. Once again, Margaret Atwood proves to be prescient. With all the recent discoveries about the fallibility of memory, with all the current failings of justice in our country and our world, and with some of our deepest spiritual leaders finally beginning to address the darkness as well as the light in all of us, we would all do well to learn to pause and think and reserve judgment more often than passing it.  The cautionary tale of Grace Marks teaches us, if nothing else, that the voiceless and the vulnerable are always the easiest to blame.  But is that kind of easy injustice what we want to embrace?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Second Half-Century

Anna at Guedelon
photo by Amy Brandon

As I have neared and now passed age 50 over the last couple years, I find myself changing slowly, like a jagged mountain eroding into a smooth stone, more likely now to be prone to naps than to tempests.  As my emotions settle, my mind seems to wake and clear, and my reading interests move in different directions.  Often,  I find myself reading ten or eleven books at a time now. This became possible only when I learned to let go of goal-oriented reading.  Usually, eventually, I will finish what I start, but not always.  Even if I don’t finish, I still find I take something positive away from most books.  I look at reading now more like mining for gold dust than like searching for the Hope Diamond.  Not every book is a diamond, but most contain at least a little pretty dust.

Right now, at this point in my life, I feel like I’m reaching the end of the person I was and am on the cusp of a new and different person.  I hope this new person will be able to write more. I’ve missed writing about what I’ve read.  For a time I came to feel like I either didn’t have anything new to say or wasn’t able to express what I was thinking. Maybe we all have to get quiet and shut down for a while to clear our minds for new thoughts and new ways of being.  Wisdom seems to come at a glacial pace, if it comes at all, no matter how many books I devour, but I will keep on devouring them, looking for those traces of gold dust.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

We Miss the Log in the Mirror Every Time

"The high point of my day was seeing Frank emerge from the chrysalis of his closet to unfurl his sartorial wings." 

My Book Guru is three for three so far this year.  It's time for another dinner and book discussion so I can get some more ideas! Her third recommendation, Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson is an entertaining little novel about a reclusive author and her ten-year-old autistic son and their "forced" cohabitation and interaction with an assistant from the author's publishing house.

MM Banning (Mimi) is a literary one hit wonder. Upon publication, her only novel becomes a huge hit, quickly earning its place in the school canon, and its author just as quickly retreats into herself, literally and figuratively, and is not heard from again for many years.  (Shades of Harper Lee's life.) During this reclusive period, Mimi mysteriously becomes the mother of an autistic son.  He is her only relative and she his, and for a while, all is well, until she becomes the victim of a scam artist and realizes she needs to produce another book to provide financial security for herself and her son, Frank. In order to write, Mimi needs help tending Frank, thus the presence of Alice, the assistant who serves as the book's narrator, in Banning's home.  Given Frank's propensities, this task becomes almost Herculean in the effort it requires. Most of the book centers around Alice's attempt to find a way to develop a relationship with Frank. I won't say more.  If you want to know how this turns out, read the book.

Several of the novel's themes resonated with me, especially given our current cultural climate. Both Mimi and Frank, each in her or his own way, are almost too sensitive to exist in our society as it stands now. When are we going to learn not only to accept but to embrace and celebrate difference?   It's way past time for us to grow up and stop being threatened by and afraid of difference among us. That's what our bent toward tribalism and isolationism really is...fear.  We are so afraid of those who are different that we band together en masse to expel them from our sight.  How far removed is this from the practice of leaving our weak for the wolves?  Think about that every time you find yourself telling someone to find a way to fit in or to "get over" injustice.  How do we, as a society, respond to people who perpetrate banal and sophomoric cruelties like the ones Frank has to endure in this lovely little novel? Do we reject them, or do we elect them?  Funny how we seem to be able to see the cruelty in others' stories but not in our own.  To paraphrase one of my favorite teachers:  we see the splinter in someone else's eye from 50 feet but miss the log in the mirror every time.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Undermajordomo Minor

photo by me

"His heart was a church of his own choosing, and the lights came through the colorful windows."

Thanks once again to my friend, Jennifer, for a fantastic reading recommendation!  I think I'm going to appoint her my Book Guru.  I hope she will find the title pay enough.  Feel free to use it as a resume builder, Sister.

When she recommended Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt, she said that she had no idea how to describe it or how to explain why she liked it.  I completely concur with that assessment.  It's a quirky novel full of likable characters and witty, engaging dialogue, but I don't really know how to explain exactly what it's about or even why I found it so compelling.  The best description I can come up with is an allegorical fairy-tale-type coming-of-age story about a lovable, dishonest and somewhat self-centered young man who leaves home, gets robbed, gets unrobbed, gets a job, falls in love with his robber's daughter, makes friends with said robber among others, makes enemies, gets murdered, gets unmurdered, finds himself abandoned, becomes unjobbed, and embarks on a quest to find his love and life.  How's that?

Here's what I know for sure:  I loved just about every minute of this book and miss the characters and their snappy dialogue and insouciant attitudes like people I wish I knew.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Norwegian By Night

photo by me
"Most things are both true and absurd." Sheldon/Donny 

Thanks to a recommendation from my friend Jennifer, I started 2017 off with an entertaining, quirky little book.  Norwegian By Night by Derek Miller is part murder mystery, part political thriller, and part introspective journal of an 82-year-old, Jewish-American, Korean War vet named Sheldon who is also named Donny.

In the last few years I seemed to have been drawn to anything set in Scandinavia, so I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the countryside as Sheldon/Donny attempts to elude both the Norwegian police and the KLA mafia-type bad guy whose son Sheldon/Donny has inadvertently kidnapped.

The book kept my interest and was a great diversion during the snow storm this weekend. I had never heard of either the book or the author, but I will definitely read his other work.  If you need a quick and entertaining read, I highly recommend this one.  Even better, I found it on Kindle for $1.99.